38. To kill or not to kill

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Ayla didn't have the energy to return to Reuben and demand the answers to her questions. After she had left him, she suddenly felt bone-crushingly tired. The battle had taken its toll on her: she hardly managed to return to her chambers and cross the room to the bed before she collapsed and the darkness claimed her.

Although she’d had a good night's sleep the night before the battle, she slept for a full five hours. Not even thoughts of Reuben could keep her awake, though a certain devilish smile never left her alone in her dreams. She wasn't even as embarrassed about that fact when she woke up as she ordinarily might have been. Imagining what bloody specters might have plagued her dreams instead, she was really rather grateful.

She yawned and stretched, enjoying the warmth of the bed for just one moment more. But she knew she had to get up. Looking out of the window, she saw that the sun was nearing the horizon. It was time for dinner. She had a duty to perform.

For the first time in many days, she got up and went to the main hall to eat. She had preferred to eat in her chambers lately, which afforded her the privacy to think about her troubles undisturbed and meant she didn't have to put on a mask of confidence. But after the battle, she felt her responsibility stronger than before. Who was to give confidence to the people of Luntberg if not she, the mistress of the castle?

A hush fell over the assembled crowd as she entered the main hall. Dinner had just been served, and everybody was about to start eating. When they saw her, spoons and knives stopped in mid-air, and all eyes went to her.

Suddenly, a sense of significance overcame Ayla. Her eyes went to her father's high-backed chair, the lord's chair, in the center of the room. Then they strayed to the smaller chair beside it, which she usually sat in during mealtimes, although her father never sat beside her. It had seemed wrong to appropriate her father's place. There had never been a need to, and even if there had been, she didn't feel ready.

Now though...

Her gaze met Burchard's. The old steward sat one table further down from the raised platform of the lord's table, and was studying her more intently than anyone else in the hall. His face gave nothing away. Most of it was hidden, as usual, behind that giant bushy mustache and those eyebrows of his.

Ayla raised her chin a tiny little bit and marched over to the lord's table. Climbing onto the raised platform, she went directly to the lord's chair and sat down.

Everyone let out a breath they hadn't realized they'd been holding. Ayla knocked on the table with a knife.

“Everybody, please start eating, don't wait for me. I'm sure you all have a lot of work to do to ensure our continued safety, and I wouldn't want to keep you here because of courtly manners. They won't keep us alive.”

Ayla chanced a look at her steward. Burchard's face was still impassive. But Ayla thought his mustache looked more relaxed—perhaps even a bit proud of her.

“Burchard?” She waved him over. “Please come here, sit next to me. We have a few matters to discuss.”

Rising, he made an unusually deep bow and said: “As you command, Milady.”

She knew his words to be no empty show.

As he came to sit next to her, servants came scurrying to the table with platters of bread and bowls of porridge—people who she had known only casually all her life and who now treated her with an extraordinary mix of love and deference. A mix she hadn't witnessed for years—not since her father had been well. They had treated him exactly like that.

Part of her ached for replacing him, but another part knew that she wasn't replacing him. She was taking up his standard. That, and the respect of her people, made her feel warm inside. It also made her feel a bit queasy.

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